Advocates challenge life sentences without the possibility of parole

Written by on February 9, 2021

Advocates challenge life sentences without the possibility of parole

By Tyler Pratt

February 9, 2021

AP Photo

A Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case is being called the first of its kind, challenging the fate of inmates serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. 

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Pardiss Kebriaei, is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The group, along with the Abolitionist Law Center, represents six plaintiffs with felony murder convictions, who they say did not commit murder or intend to kill and have been in jail for decades with no chance of parole. 

“Pennsylvania leads among states in the number of people it condemns this way,” Kebriaei said. “There are other states like California and Louisiana and Florida that also have people serving death by incarceration in extremely high numbers.” 

According to the brief they filed with the court, nearly 70% of life inmates in the Commonwealth without parole sentences or felony murder are Black, yet Black people only make up 12% of the state’s population.

The lead plaintiff is Marie Scott, a 67-year-old Black woman. She has served nearly 50 years in jail on a murder conviction. She took part in a robbery during which someone else killed the victim. 

“The case will decide whether people like her deserve the very basic and narrow right to be eligible for parole,” Kebriaei said

Plaintiffs aren’t asking for parole guarantees or changes to sentencing. They’re saying, not even being considered for parole is cruel and unusual punishment. But before judges can rule on that, they need to decide if Commonwealth Court is the right venue. 

Ronald Eisenberg is chief of the special litigation section at the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. He represents the Board of Probation and Parole, which wants the case dismissed.

“This court’s jurisdiction is not created by the fact that somebody has a constitutional challenge,” Eisenberg said in court.

The judges however appeared to signal on Monday it was the correct court. 

“This is the forum to challenge the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania state statue,” President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt replied.

Should the court continue to hear the case and rule in Marie Scott’s favor down the line, it could impact roughly 1,100 people serving life without parole in Pennsylvania.

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